Staying In

I’ve been told that breaking into the comics industry is easy, it’s the staying in that’s hard..

I’ve been working in comics since 1989, so I thought I would share what I’ve learned over those years that helped me keep working. Some seem obvious and others outright stupid, but some people don’t seem to know them.

This advice applies to not just pencilers, writers and other credited comics-makers, but all freelancers and staff people. In fact, it’s pretty good advice for anyone in business.

•Be good at your job. Now, that sounds like a “duh” moment, but some people starting out think the lower-level positions aren’t worth their time. Wrong. If you are sitting in the production department dreaming of being a professional penciler and slag off on your current job, people notice. If someone sees you putting pride into all that you do, they will believe you’d do the same in the job you really want.

•Don’t be a jerk. Obvious, yes. But in the stressful environment of periodical publishing, things can get tense. Don’t take out your frustration on others. People talk and if you become known as a jerk to one person, expect everyone to hear it.

•Don’t lie. Again, obvious, but hear me out. You’re a colorist and you have a crushing deadline. Do you tell your editor that you’ll have it done in time when you damn well know you won’t, or do you tell them honestly that it’s not going to happen? Editors are jugglers. They have a lot going on at once and if you screw them over, they drop the balls. They’d much rather you be honest and work with them. More than likely they can give you more time, but more importantly, they know that you’ll be honest with them in the future. I’ve seen too many people no longer in the business over-promise.

•Answer questions, don’t ask them. What? What I mean by that is be a problem-solver. Be helpful, take charge of a problem. Do your best and then take it to an editor. Even if it’s not exactly what they want, they will appreciate the effort and it may help them solve the problem.

•You’re a pro, not a fan anymore. Don’t geek out on your childhood idol. Within professional circles, the fan geek stands out. You are their equal, act like it. Don’t ask for a sketch, don’t try to be their friend, don’t ask them to critique your work. There may come a time when a fellow pro will ask to check out your work, but remember don’t take advantage of their courtesy. And don’t start sending out samples to everyone you work with. It makes them feel uncomfortable to work with you if they feel your stuff is not up to snuff.

•Keep your mouth shut. Don’t gossip, don’t listen to gossip, don’t assume anything to be true. Freelancers are old washer women. We like to talk. I’m guilty of it. I try not to, but it happens. For your sake, just keep out of it. No one likes a busy-body. Don’t go on Twitter or Facebook and talk about other creators in a negative way. Remember, bad talk about someone could influence people into not hiring them or you.

•Get better. Don’t rest on your laurels. Always try to improve or try new things. Even in the most mundane jobs. When I was on-staff at Marvel, I went from letterer to senior letterer in a year because I always tried to get better and people noticed. I came in early, I worked through lunch, I stayed late. Editors began noticing I’d come in early and they wanted me to do their corrections, so they began coming in early to ensure I did their work. Even now, I try new things and push to improve.

•If you’re good enough, you’re not good enough. I hear so many people wanting to be writers or pencilers. And usually, their first remark is, “Well, if that guy can get work, I should. My work is better than theirs.” Wrong. You don’t know why they get work and comparing yourself to the “least talented” person is not where you should be going. You, as a penciler, need to be better than Jim Lee or Greg Capullo or the Kuberts. As a writer, work to achieve to be better than Bendis or Miller or Moore. Strive for that. Make publishers need to have you. Why work to be just good enough?

Be friendly even when you don’t want to. Be nice to people. Be cheerful and upbeat. No one wants to work with a person who complains all the time (like me), when the next guy over who does the same job equally well is pleasant and a joy to work with. I know it’s hard sometimes to feel that way, but a quick call or an e-mail that is nice is much better than having the person on the other end want to work with anyone but you.

Promote your work. This one I’ve always had trouble with. It’s okay to get online and promote your work. It’s your work, not you. If someone doesn’t like your work, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. And, even if they don’t, who cares? You can’t make everyone happy. And don’t be shy. Go on Twitter and Facebook and promote. I’ve found that the people who self-promote most, tend to do better and get more work over time. Perception is reality. You tell enough people that the work is good and exciting and it will be those things.

•Don’t procrastinate. Get things done because who knows if someone will come along with another assignment. Maybe even that dream assignment, but you insisted on playing X-Box and still have to finish that first job.

•You can say no. This is another one I’ve had trouble with. Be honest with people. If you can’t or don’t want to do a job (freelance, I mean. Staff, you do what you’re asked to do)say no to it. The fear as a freelancer is once you say no, that editor or publisher will never ask you again. And that may happen, but at a later date send the editor a friendly note saying that you’re looking for work. People appreciate when you don’t waste their time. Don’t say yes, then bail on a job halfway through because you had no time or interest.

Respect your elders. I see so many newcomers in the business for five minutes telling everyone the way things should be done. They rip people who have been in the business much longer but have no clue what they’re talking about. Instead of bashing, how about contacting them and telling them how much you like their work? There are so many tips and tricks that people in the industry have gained over their years. Show them the respect they’ve earned.

Okay. There are plenty more, but I have a deadline to make. If you have any other tips, be sure to share them. After you get your work done!

19 Responses to “Staying In”

  • Tauriq Moosa:

    Thank you so much for this advice. As someone trying to write comics, this is a very helpful set of things to keep in the back of my mind. I still don’t like the idea of self-promotion but you are right about it being your work, as opposed to “you”. I would love to meet the people that said it’s easy to break in – certainly can’t be true for us (nobody) writers.

  • You hit the nail on the head Chris! Excellent points all around! I appreciate that an experienced pro such as yourself has taken the time to write this!

  • Great post! i agreed in everything specially the “If you’re good enough, you’re not good enough” that is something i heard all the time, they say that is better that X artists, when you don’t know if he has an extremely tight and hard deadline, a different style that is the opposite of what you like, it was inked and or colored poorly (then we may get back to the same reasons than the ones from the penciler) etc.

    Again great article I’ll look forward for more of it!

  • This is all true in many other industries as well.

  • Victoria O:

    This is great, it’s like – The Freelancer’s Ten Commandments. Except there’s 13. I’ve been doing Freelance design and video and other visual stuff since I got out of college (a few years ago) and can vouch that these are the things to always keep in mind, and sometimes you need re-evaluate how you’ve been doing, and improve on the ones that arent doing so good. Like Im always slacking on the self-promotion.

    Also I sometimes slack on another important thing that isn’t specifically mentioned here – always respond when being given directions. I guess it goes under the “be nice” section. If you’re working for a client long-distance, always respond to their notes and phone calls immediately, even if its “I got your message, will look over this and respond later”. When being told directions face-to-face, stay awake and let the other person know you hear and understand their ideas. (If it’s a really long rant about a style of design that I was already going to do anyway, I tend to zone out. But that means I could be missing some actually valuable, interesting input)

    In conclusion – Im saving this page as a future checklist for my performance. Thanks

  • Chris speaketh the truth!

  • [...] creator (and Eisner and Harvey award nominee) Chris Eliopoulos has penned (or typed) a must read for anyone working their way up in the comic industry. The topic – not how to break into comics, but how to stay. If you’re good enough, [...]

  • Good advice here, Chris. Not just for comics, but any professional industry. I work in advertising during the day, and these hold true for that work as well.

    While you wouldn’t necessarily promote your advertising work on facebook, it’s important to promote it internally so co-workers and bosses know what a good job you did and the role you played in an important campaign. Gets you more plumb assignments down the road. Same in comics!

  • So true, every one of these! Good common sense advise to newcomers as well as those who have been around for a while. A lot of artists I know (including myself) share many of these shortcomings (procrastination, over-committing, not knowing how to say no). I’ve always been told, if you say “no” they’ll never call you back. That may be true, but I think you’ll get more points for being honest than for dropping the ball.

    A lot of the artists I admire never seem satisfied with their output. That’s what drives them to get better and improve. Unfortunately, you can never rest on your laurels, you’ve got to give them something even better the next go around. Reputation is everything in this business, and professionalism goes a long way. Great post, Chris!

  • Chris has provided outstanding practical advice here for nearly ANY profession, as Mark says. Our work world evolving into a largely freelance model and we all need skills beyond our technical/artistic abilities – heed Chris’ advice and read Free Agent Nation by Dan Pink.

  • Wonderful post. I hope people take it to heart. I was guilty of several of these. It took working as a bellman to realize that the customer service skills required to make good tips while carrying luggage applies nicely to other areas of life.

  • As a “rookie” cartoonist, I greatly appreciate this article. It’s already bookmarked on my computer. I know I personally try new styles and techniques, but I do slack off in occaison. This article definitely inspired me to do the best of my abilities. Thank you!

  • This is great advice and most of it is applicable to any job. I think the difference with comics is that it is such a freelance/work from home based industry that newcomers don’t have much opportunity to learn industry etiquette from “coworkers” and mentors. I think this list could probably be helpful for a lot of people.

  • Great advice! I’ve been guilty of a few of these. Some of them I’ve learned with age and experience. Thanks for telling it like it is!

  • [...] the mail and conquering the world. I came across a pretty interesting article written over at Chris Eliopoulos. The article is titled “How to Stay in Comics” and essentially it’s written by a guy in the [...]

  • Great stuff, Chris! Thanks for posting this.

  • JeffP:

    Someone should send this list to Scott Kurtz.

  • [...] Posted on March 25 2013 by Elizabeth Marek This post is adapted from Chris Eliopoulos’ “Staying In” article for comic book artists. The article was forwarded to me by my husband who is an artist and [...]

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